There are more shipwrecks off the coast of the UK than any other country on Earth; we have wrecks off our coast dating to the Bronze Age, bearing witness to hundreds, if not thousands of years of trade in cargo, people and ideas – and wars. They and their artefacts can tell stories that even the history books can’t.
Encountering a site for the first time can be puzzling. It is surprisingly hard to recognise a cannon that has lain underwater for over 200 years. How to distinguish it from a rock? Then, once its shape is revealed, how to record it? How to identify what to survey, what to look for? These questions would seem obvious on land. Then of course there is also plenty of time to discuss them. Underwater most sports divers do not carry comms, and often have very little time.
Enter the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust’s (MAST) B.A.D. course. This PADI Distinctive Specialty course, Basic Archaeological Diver, was created to equip divers with all the rudiments of underwater archaeology, how to record and interpret the thousands of wrecks off the coast of the UK and beyond. (Some readers old enough will spot that MAST pinched the acronym from the original commercial dive course taught at Bovisand, Plymouth called Basic Air Diver. Similarities end there other than geographical location; the course is taught in the same spot.)
[Photos by David Jones]
The course is written and designed by maritime archaeologists with experience in a great variety of underwater sites around the world. It is all part of a cunning plan of course, to recruit a new generation of eyes and ears to become the guardians of our underwater cultural heritage. The only hope we have of preserving our future is by learning from our past, by recording and appreciating our wrecks – these vessels represented society’s most developed or technologically advanced pieces of equipment, comparable to today’s space craft.
Enter the vast amphibian army of adventurous British sports divers. Armed with little more than tape measures and cameras, students learn over two days just how much of a difference they can make in preserving our underwater heritage. They also learn about the relevant heritage legislation, in a state of flux at the moment, and the background to the discipline, the difference between salvage and archaeology. International experts often visit to give talks. Lectures have included news on current projects such as the 17th century Swash Channel wreck excavation off Poole in Dorset or the Bronze Age site off Salcombe in Devon.
The course is currently taught in Plymouth – though we are now expanding with newly trained instructors in Portsmouth and the north east of England – and since the practical diving sessions take place in Bovisand and New England quarry – no foul weather or badly timed tide can stop us.
Fresh avenues open up to newly qualified BAD divers who are invited to volunteer to work on the Coronation protected wreck of 1685 off Plymouth where more survey is underway. There are otherwise ample opportunities in the UK for divers to get more involved in exploring historic wrecks by contacting the site licensees through English Heritage’s website. Many dive clubs often have their own sites. The BAD course will equip them to study them more effectively. Or for those wishing to launch deeper into the discipline, the Nautical Archaeology Society offers plenty of one or two day courses in speciality areas of the discipline such as dendrochronolgy, the study of dating timbers.
Included is a reduced price voucher to dive the Coronation site, guided by one of the licensees, expert on the site and its history. All the profits from the course contribute to underwater heritage research projects. Thanks to its popularity these proceeds have so far paid for the conservation of two of the 17th century Swash Channel wreck carvings.